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18th December, Christmas Crackers

December 18, 2011
by Paul Bommer

Crackers or bon-bons are an integral part of Christmas celebrations. A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, contriving a resemblance to an over-sized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled by two people and  it splits unevenly - much in the manner of a wishbone - accompanied by a small bang, created by friction upon a chemically impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun).

In Russia (where they are called “хлопушка”) and in some countries of the former Soviet Union, crackers are a part of New Year celebrations – however these are closer to pyrotechnical devices, normally used outdoors and, activated by one person, produce a bigger bang accompanied by fire and smoke.

In one version of the tradition, the person with the larger portion of cracker keeps the contents, while in another, each will have their own cracker and will keep its contents regardless of who got the larger part. Typically, these contents are a coloured paper hat or crown (a hang-over from Saturnalia perhaps?), a small toy or other trinket and a motto, a joke or piece of trivia on a small strip of paper. Ready-made crackers are sold in boxes, typically with different designs in red, green and gold, but making crackers from scratch using the tubes from used toilet rolls and tissue paper is a popular activity for children, and kits can also be purchased.

Crackers were invented by Thomas J. Smith of London in 1847 - as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). As sales of bon-bons slumped, Smith came up with promotional ideas. His first notion was to insert mottoes into the wrappers of the sweets (cf. fortune cookies) but this had only limited success. He was inspired to add the “crackle” element when he heard the crackle of a log upon the fire. Consequently, the size of the wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger and the sweet itself was dropped to be replaced by a small gift. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack) but the onomatopoeic “cracker” soon superseded it as rival varieties were introduced to the market. The other elements of the modern cracker – gifts, paper hats and varied designs – were all introduced by Tom Smith’s son, Walter Smith, to differentiate his product from the copycat manufacturers which sprang up.

The image I have drawn is based on a late Victorian greetings card that I stumbled upon on Facebook, showing a pine-cone sprit and Mr Punch pulling a cracker, with the legend “Merry Christmas” that I have replaced that with German, which I think has a charm all of its own – plus, to my Englische ears, it sounds funny!

Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer

One Response leave one →
  1. Annie permalink
    December 19, 2011

    Interesting the choice of a German greeting for Christmas Crackers as apparently they don’t seem to be a tradition there, at least not in the south of Germany where my sister lives. I usually send a box to my sister’s English friend as she loves them but can’t find them to buy.

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